The professionalisation of asceticism in late antiquity

Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

In a couple, or a few, weeks I am going to be giving some online seminars about church history for my churches. I’ll make sure this blog is kept informed. The theme tying together the seminars will be spiritual disciplines and the expansion of Christianity. At the same time, I am attempting to forge a book about St Benedict’s Rule. As these two forces collide in my mind, I can’t help but think about the history of monasticism and its relationship to the ante-Nicene church.

And its relationship to non-monastic followers of Jesus — this post could just as easily be the appropriation of discipleship by monks in the Later Roman Empire.

John Cassian gives an account of the origins of monasticism that, although historically worthless as Columba Stewart notes in Cassian the Monk, is nevertheless of interest when we consider the definition of a monk and of asceticism — for this is how Greg Peters uses it in The Monkhood of All Believers — and, from there, the actual origins of the Christian ascetic tradition.

According to Cassian, the first Christians were cenobitic monks — that is, monks who lived in community with shared property — citing Acts 2 as his evidence. And this Acts 2 parallel will continue to be used in descriptions of the monastic ideal for much of the western ascetic tradition. But, sighs Cassian, this didn’t last. As more people converted, things got lax. It was up to the fourth-century monks to bring discipline, true asceticism, back.

Except, of course, when they did it, asceticism was appropriated by a distinct set of Christians who lived lives set apart from the increasingly Christianised population of the Roman Empire (and its successor states as well as easterly neighbours — the non-monk ascetic Ephraim the Syrian finds himself portrayed as a monk in later Syriac literature; East Syrian monasticism is its own flourishing form of asceticism in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages).

Cassian is right that the primitive church was essentially ascetic, although we may quibble about calling them monks. This is the contention of David Bentley Hart in the notes surrounding his translation of the New Testament. Hart believes that the New Testament authors actually expect members of the Christian community to abandon all of their possessions and lead lives of simplicity and prayer (in a nutshell; I’ve not read his notes, only about them — I may have details wrong). However far that may actually go, it is certainly the case that simplicity is certainly a mark of the apostolic lifestyle, and many Christians did abandon all to gain everything (St Clare’s laudable exchange).

Other early Christian literature bears witness to an ascetic, even rigorist, ideal. I do not recall all of the details, but the Didache expects Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays and to pray three times a day. The Apostolic Tradition seems to expect members of the community to pray all seven canonical hours and to attend teaching at church before work when it is available.

Clement of Alexandria, who comes between Didache and Apostolic Tradition, believed in the simple life: simple food, simple dress, not owning fancy dishes and furniture. Eat in moderation. Study the Scriptures. Pray. These are a few of Clement’s recommendations; he believes in training, askesis, of the body and mind to be able to ascend to apatheia and in the state of dispassion to encounter the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Other figures have expectations for Christian living surrounding food, dress, personal property, and prayer, that we today would consider ascetic, such as Tertullian and Origen. These expectations are coupled in Origen with a belief that a contemplative life and meditation on Scripture can help us enter the Cloud of Unknowing and encounter the impassible God.

To what extent these ante-Nicene ascetics represent mainstream Christianity is hard to say. Well, they represent mainstream thinking. How most Christians lived for most of history is actually hard to judge. But this strand of thought is taken up by Antony and his associates and soon becomes the preserve for a special, higher class of Christian: the monk.

The monk, for these purposes, is the professional ascetic who goes above and beyond the requirements of the “normal” Christian. He or she is single-minded in devotion to God and does special things for Him. The rest of us simply have to go to church and follow the Ten Commandments — or whatever else emerges from the systems created by institutionalised Christianity.

But the idea that we are all called to fast (truly fast, not simply abstain from certain foods), to pray the canonical hours, to give away unnecessary possessions, to be single-minded in our pursuit of God — this is lost. We non-monastic lay people are there for moral instruction, not ascetic labour.

This is perhaps a gross oversimplification, but I believe something along these lines happened to Christian discipleship in Late Antiquity, within the Empire as well as outside it, and persisted throughout the Middle Ages.

Virtual communion: Christ and the means of grace

This morning, the Free Methodist Church I attend celebrated virtual communion. The pastor admitted to not being sure about what it means theologically, but he wanted to do it at this time, to celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection through the sacrament of Holy Communion. So we all had our tiny cups of grape juice and bits of bread at home.

I’m not sure about this theologically, either.

And I don’t know what John Wesley, who had a high view of the sacrament and recommended receiving it weekly (as often as possible, in fact), and would receive it daily during Christmastide, himself, would have thought, either. His sermon “On the Duty of Constant Communion” is worth reading, though!

Nonetheless, a few thoughts that I had about doing this ran as follows.

At the most basic, if we set aside the questions of Real Presence and what a sacrament is, Holy Communion — we can all agree — is a memorial of Christ’s precious death and glorious resurrection. Therefore, even if someone were to definitively prove that there was no mystery in the bread and juice I consumed this morning, no special grace or Presence of the Lord, it would still service as a vibrant and tactile reminder of our salvation.

That alone might make it worth doing, so long as we aren’t cheapening the sacrament in doing this. (Are we?)

My next thought, however, tells me that, in fact, Holy Communion, even from a symbolist or memorialist position (which I do not hold), is never “just” bread and wine, and never “just” a remembrance. Through the enacting of the recapitulation of the Last Supper and recollecting the body broken and blood shed, in reading and praying the very words of Scripture, the words of the Word, we encounter Him. He meets us.

And in receiving bread and wine in faith, we encounter Him. He meets us, enters us.

Now, is it the same as when we are truly the ecclesia, the assembly of God’s people, constituted precisely in being taken out of the world and gathered together in one place and, as Christ’s mystical body, mystically consuming His body? No, I don’t think so. I’m not sure I can articulate how it is different.

Different isn’t wrong, though.

Taking up dear John Wesley again, he preaches in The Means of Grace that there are three chief means of grace:

  1. Prayer
  2. Reading the Bible
  3. Holy Communion

He says:

By “means of grace” I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.

In a service of virtual communion, we are engaged in at least two out of three means of grace. So when we eat that bread and drink that wine, when we hear our minister pray the words of sacred Scripture, the words of institution from Our Lord Himself, when we pray the other prayers — I think we meet with Jesus.

Reading Clement of Alexandria, in fact, I am realising that the Church Fathers are not always uniform in their interpretation of Scripture (no surprise), and I also realise the polyvalence of certain passages, especially John 6 — “I am the bread of life,” etc. I cannot, at this stage of church history and raised an Anglican, I cannot read John 6 as anything but Eucharistic. Clement of Alexandria, I have found, reads this sometimes as Eucharistic, sometimes as about encountering the Word in Scripture, sometimes about meeting Him in prayer.

All three of Welsey’s means of grace are means of encountering Jesus as the Bread of Life from John 6, as far as Clement is concerned.

I have also noticed that the mystic and ascetic Evagrius Ponticus also sees encountering Christ at prayer as equal to meeting Him in the Eucharist. Furthermore, Origen also believes that we can meet and commune with Christ in Scripture as well as we can in the Blessed Sacrament.

So, at this weird moment in history, when virtual communion is all we can get — Jesus will be there with us, in us, through us, for us.

Taste and see that Lord is good. (Ps. 34:8)

Origen: An Introduction to His Life and Thought | Mike Bird

I was interested to see a volume in a series I appreciate — Cascade Companions — on Origen, of whom I have been doing a little bit of reading today. Here’s a quick review by Mike Bird of the volume. Author of the volume is Ronald E. Heine, who translated Origen/Jerome’s commentary on Ephesians:

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/2020/03/origen-an-introduction-to-his-life-and-thought/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Sharing+the+Gospel&utm_content=46

Work is prayer

So I’m working on a sermon about ceaseless prayer (1 Thessalonians 5:17: ‘pray without ceasing’). And I had this thought that the ancients never came up with any cop-outs for ceaseless prayer. You know, ‘St Paul means pray regularly’ or something. Or ‘ceaseless in Greek doesn’t mean the same thing when put in context.’

However, Origen almost does, as I learned doing my research for the sermon:

He prays without ceasing who joins prayer to works that are of obligation, and good works to his prayer. For virtuous works, or the carrying out of what is enjoined, form part of prayer. It is only in this way that we can understand the injunction, pray without ceasing, as something that we can carry out; that is to say, if we regard the whole life of the saint as one great continuous prayer. What is usually termed “prayer” is but a part of this prayer, and it should be performed not less than three times each day. … –On Prayer, 12.2, trans. John J. O’Meara (Ancient Christian Writers 19; pp. 46-47)

Perhaps, however, this is not a cop-out. When you read the Philokalia, fifth-century writers like Hesychios the Priest of Diadochus of Photike talk about constant vigilance and ceaseless prayer, and how stopping praying can harm your progress toward holiness and hesychia (silence/stillness).

It’s a grand ideal.

But I still have to make breakfast for myself and my sons, eat said breakfast, take a shower, “go to work”, change diapers, fold laundry, empty the dishwasher, maintain a healthy and human relationship with my wife and any other people I see during the day, buy groceries, help cook supper and lunch at times, bathe my sons, brush my teeth, and so forth.

Some of these acts I can pray during. Others I cannot, for they require my attention for one reason or another.

Origen’s approach, then, is to turn these non-prayer-acts into prayers. Work is prayer.

This is, in fact, an idea I found once in a book about Benedictines (possibly Esther de Waal, Seeking God?), that our work, especially in service to others, is itself prayer. As I empty the dishwasher, I often say to myself, ‘Work is prayer. Prayer is work. Service is love.’

Furthermore, if we commit ourselves more fully to undivided prayer when we do set aside times for seeking the face of God, prayer will begin to imbue our lives, and we will become a living prayer. At least, that’s what they say…

Blood: Agony & Allegory 3: Isaiah 63 in the Fathers

To see what the Fathers have to say about Isaiah 63:3, about God treading the winepress of wrath and staining his robes with the blood of his enemies, I have chosen to look at Robert Louis Wilken, The Church’s Bible, volume on Isaiah. Like IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, this is a chain of patristic passages, but Wilken also includes medieval writers, and his passages are longer. I find it easier to read than the former, and I do hope the project as a whole some day finds completion (if Wilken or someone from Eerdmans has wandered by, I volunteer myself to edit/translate a volume).

St Cyprian of Carthage writes:

In Isaiah the Holy Spirit bears witness to this same thing when he speaks of the Lord’s passion in the words: Why are your garments red, and your clothes as if from treading a full and well-trodden wine vat? (63:2). Can water make clothing red? In the wine vat is it water which is trodden by the feet and squeezed out by the press? Clearly wine is referred to here, so that by wine we may understand the blood of the Lord. What was made known later in the cup of the Lord was foretold by the proclamation of the prophets. It also mentions treading and pressing down, because one cannot prepare wine for drinking without the bunch of grapes first being trodden and pressed. In the same way we could not drink the blood of Christ if Christ had not first been trodden upon and pressed down and first drunk the cup that he would pass on for his believers to drink. (493-4)

St Cyprian has here not only confirmed Malcolm Guite’s statement that the Fathers interpret this blood to be that of Christ, he has taken us into the mysteries of God, to, in fact, the mystery of the Eucharist. The wine-dark blood on the garments is a type of the blood of Christ, which is itself the wine at the Eucharist. The life of the Church is caught up mystically in the death of Christ and rotates back to find itself prefigured in the words of the prophet.

Origen:

When they see his right hand dripping with blood — if one must speak this way — and his person covered with blood because of his valorous deeds, they inquire further: Why is your apparel scarlet, and your garments as if fresh from a full winepress that has been trampled down? (63:2) To which he answers: I trampled them (63:3). Indeed, this is why he had to wash his robe in wine and his garments in the blood of grapes (Gen 49:11). For after he bore our infirmities and carried our sicknesses (Isa 53:4), and after he took away the sin of the whole world (John 1:29) and had done so much good to so many, then he received the Baptism that is greater than any imagined by men, to which he alluded when he said: I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! (Luke 12:50). (494)

One last (Wilken includes several other commentators), St Gregory the Great:

Long ago Isaiah looked upon the garment of Christ, which was stained with the blood of the passion on the cross, and inquired, Why are your garments red, and your clohtes as if from a trodden winepress? (63:2). To which he answered, I alone have trodden the winepress, and of the nations no man is with me (63:3). He alone trod the winepress in which he was trodden, he who by his own power conquered the passion which he endured. For he who suffered unto death on a cross (Phil 2:8) rose from the dead in glory. And rightly is it said, And of the nations no man is with me, since those on whose behalf he came to suffer ought to have shared in his passion. But, inasmuch as that time the nations had not yet come to believe, in his passion he laments those who life he sought in that passion.

So we see here Christian vision transfigured in the light of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. Many people get uneasy about the violence of the Hebrew Bible, and they feel that somehow YHWH there is incompatible with the God and Father of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Yet the transfigured vision of Who God Is, infused with a grasp of His undying love that died for us, with a realisation that God is Jesus, that God is love, that while we were still His enemies, One of the Holy Trinity was crucified and died for us — this transfigured vision sees prophecy in new light.

One of the themes of Guite’s book, Faith, Hope and Poetry, is transfigured vision. We are invited not simply to look at but to look through. Poetry draws us not to stay our eye on the surface of the glass of the window of visible reality but to pass through it to the symbolic realm beneath. The prophetic, apocalyptic, and wisdom literature of Scripture invite us to do this most especially, for in these genres the revelation of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity is made unto us in the poetic mode, through images, through symbols, through ritual acts, through symbolic acts, through utterances resonant with multiple modes of meaning and richnesses of voice.

So we look at Isaiah 63, and at first, if we want to read the Bible as Christians, we see the Rider on the White Horse of Revelation. After all, as Miroslav Volf argues in Exclusion and Embrace, knowing that God as Christ will come to judge the nations with perfect righteousness at the eschaton is what can give us power not to take vengeance now.

This reading is not wrong.

Somehow, though, the imagery of wine and blood together, and the inevitable association of the divine figure of Isaiah 63 with God the Son, lead the Fathers to see the wine and blood as Christ’s blood, in Gethsemane, on the cross, in the Eucharist.

It is a feast of imagery, plentiful with divine truths.

Blood: Agony & Allegory 2: Christological exegesis

The goal of this series is to consider the Christological reading of Isaiah 63, which sees the blood from the wine-press as the blood of Christ, inspired by Malcolm Guite’s reading of George Herbert’s ‘The Agony’. The verse in question, Isaiah 63:3:

I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.

According to Guite, the Fathers see Christ’s blood as the blood ‘sprinkled upon my garments’. Before turning to the Fathers, it is always worth thinking about their mindset and method. How do they come to such a reading?

In short: All the Scriptures are about Jesus Christ. We don’t even need to look to the Fathers to see this:

And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he [Jesus] expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)

For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us. (2 Cor. 1:20)

The typological approach is used in Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15, and the vast majority of the book of Hebrews. Various Scriptural passages are taken by the writers of the New Testament to refer to Christ as well, from Matthew onwards, even if they seem to a modern(ist) eye to refer to something else. But, of course, is Jesus not God the Word? Might there not be, as a result, some special relationship between God the Word and God’s word written?

Whether you can reconcile yourself to the spiritual reading of Scripture or not, centuries of tradition, East and West, have read the Bible this way, taking their cue from the apostles. I have found myself recently beguiled by Henri de Lubac on this matter, so I present to you his words from the second volume of Medieval Exegesis, translated by E. M. Macierowski.

All the patristic and medieval discussions of allegory

come together in the concrete definition of allegoria such as one reads, for example, in Bede,[note 21] or in many others after him: [note 22] “Allegory exists when the present sacraments of Christ and the Church are signed by means of mystical words or things.” (p. 91)

In Christian exegesis, there is no longer myth on the one hand; there is no longer naturalistic thought or philosophical abstraction, on the other. What it proposes is to ‘introduce by figures’ the events and the laws of the old Covenant ‘to the sight of the Truth,’ which is nothing but ‘the fullness of the Christ.'[n. 26] So thereby one is clearly going, at least in a first step, from history to history — though assuredly not to mere history, or not to what is merely beyond history.[n. 27] One is led by a series of singular facts up to one other singular Fact; one series of divine interventions, whose reality itself is significant, leads to another sort of divine intervention, equally real, but deeper and more decisive. Everything culminates in one great Fact, which, in its unique singularity, has multiple repercussions; which dominates history and which is the bearer of all light as well as of all spiritual fecundity: the Fact of Christ. As Cassiodorus puts it, a bit crudely perhaps but forcefully, there is not any one theory or one invention of a philosopher, ‘which is formed in our hearts with a fantastic imagination’; this is not one idea, itself fitting, happy and fruitful even: this is a reality ‘which grasps an existing person,’ a reality inserted at a certain moment in our history and which blossoms in the Church, a ‘gathering of all the holy faithful, one in heart and soul, the bride of Christ, the Jerusalem of the age to come.'[n. 28], p. 101

No more than life in Christ is the knowledge of Christ drawn from Scripture accessible to the natural man, the one who confines himself to mere appearances even in his deepest reflections. Interior and spiritual, the object of allegory is by that very fact a ‘hidden’ object: mysticus occultus. It conceals itself from carnal eyes. Pagans do not perceive it, nor do unbelieving Jews, nor those ‘carnal’ Christians who see in Christ nothing but a human being. It is like a fire hidden in a rock: so long as one holds it in one’s hand to observe its surface, it stays cold; but when one strikes it with iron, at that point the spark flashes forth. As it is for Christ, so it is for the Scriptures: with a glance piercing like fire, their secret ought, so to speak, to be wrenched free from them — and it is the same secret: for it si with regard to the written word of God as it is with the incarnate word of God. The letter is his flesh; the spirit is his divinity. Letter and flesh are like milk, the nourishment of children and the weak; spirit and divinity are the bread, the solid nourishment. p.107

As I say, Henri de Lubac here beguiles me. I feel like I am truly discovering how to read the Bible as a Christian — as one baptised into Christ, adopted by the Father, indwelt by the Spirit. It is rich, it is beautiful. This is the kind of religion I want and crave, not dry modern(ist) scholarship on the Scripture (interesting as it is, it only goes so far), but access to the living fountain of Jesus Christ.

Lubac’s Endnotes:

21: De tab., Bk. I, c. vi; c. ix.

26: Cf. Or., In Jo., Bk. VI, c. iii, n. 14-5 (109).

27: Thus it is insufficient to define the contrast between Christianity and paganism in the time of Diocletian, or any other epoch, by saying with F. C. Burkitt that it is “the contrast between an historical account and a philosophical account, or rather … between an annalistic and a systematic account” (Church and Gnosis, 1932, 127; cf. 138, 139, 145).

28: In ps. IV (PL 70, 47C)

The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition by Andrew Louth (review)

The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to DenysThe Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys by Andrew Louth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a fine piece of introduction and analysis of what may, rather then ‘mystical’, more precisely be considered the contemplative strand of Christianity as it took on and then adapted (or at times rejected) the Platonic inheritance. The 2006 edition is definitely to be preferred, for in this edition Louth closes with a very challenging Afterword wherein he confronts the very concept of mysticism. We all think we know what the word means, but probably we don’t.

After chapters on Plato, Philo, and Plotinus, Louth discusses Origen; ‘Nicene Orthodoxy’ which includes Athanasius (who raises an anti-‘mystical’ challenge to Platonism) and Gregory of Nyssa; ‘The Monastic Contribution’ which considers Evagrius of Pontus (the rich but problematic Origenist/Platonist), the Macarian Homilies, and Diadochus of Photiki who brings out strands in both of the other two in this chapter; Augustine of Hippo’s contribution; then Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (whom he refers to as ‘Denys’).

Living in a post-Carmelite age whose understanding of Christian ‘mysticism’ is indelibly marked by the late medieval and early modern inheritance, Chapter 9 is an important discussion of St John of the Cross and the patristic inheritance. Louth argues that there is, indeed, some difference, but more often of style and perspective than content. The final chapter is ‘The Mystical Life and the Mystical Body’. This final chapter reminds us of a chief difference between ancient Christian ‘mysticism’ and the philosophers, for the ancient Christians always thought in terms of the Christian community, the liturgy, and the communion of saints, rather than Plotinus flight of the alone to the Alone.

In each of the ancient philosophers or patristic authors analysed, Louth gives us a run-through of what we may consider his ‘mystical’ teaching, looking both at their reception and at their challenge of Platonist ideas. It is a helpful book in many ways, although one is reminded that most of the praktike of the contemplative tradition in Christianity is the pursuit of moral virtue and askesis rather than the delineation of particular psychological practices as taught by the baptised Buddhism of Anthony de Mello, S.J., in Sadhana. I would have liked to have seen more on Diadochus and the Jesus Prayer, since the Jesus Prayer is the heart of so much of what we may consider Eastern Orthodox ‘mysticism’ today.

In the end, I recommend this book. At times it is challenging to read. At times, since it is introductory, it feels not quite deep enough. But overall, it gives you some idea of the landscape of these authors and this strand, as well as questions to take with you on your own journey into the broad literature of Christian spirituality.

View all my reviews

Origen and divine dereliction

As I mentioned a while ago, I am ruminating on Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition. At present, I am working through the chapter on Origen of Alexandria (184/5-253/4). Origen is the first Christian in the book, and his adaptation of Platonist mystical theory and allegorical readings of the Bible have had a lasting impact on Christian spirituality and theology, right up to this day. One of the things that Louth makes clear is how Origen’s Christian belief impacted his mystical ideas and transformed the Platonic heritage.

Of interest to my most recent theme on this blog is the fact that Origen anticipates St John of the Cross in the famous idea of a mystic’s perceived abandonment by God:

The Bride then beholds the Bridegroom; and he, as soon as she has seen him, goes away. He does this frequently throughout the Song; and that is something nobody can understand who has not suffered it himself. God is my witness that I have often perceived the Bridegroom drawing near me and being most intensely present with me; then suddenly he has withdrawn and I could not find him, though I sought to do so. I long therefore for him to come again, and sometimes he does so. Then when he has appeared and I lay hold of him, he slips away once more. And when he has so slipped away my search for him begins anew. So does he act with me repeatedly, until in truth I hold him and go up, ‘leaning on my Nephew’s arm’. (Homily on the Song of Songs I. 7: GCS, 39, quoted by Louth, p. 69)

Louth has a chapter on St John of the Cross and the Patristic heritage, so I’ll be interested to see how he picks this up. Nonetheless, at the roots of the Christian mystical tradition, this idea of feeling that God at times suddenly leaves the seeker alone is found, embedded in both Origen’s personal experience and his reading of the Bible.

Part of what this illustrates, besides the germ of the idea of the Dark Night of the Soul, is the uncontainability of the Christian God. He comes and goes as He pleases. Those Christians who have been blessed with ‘mystical’ encounters with Him know through such experiences as the above that it was not any trick on their part but His very grace that made Him come in that way — this is the teaching and experience of St Bernard, St Thomas Aquinas, St Seraphim of Sarov, Archimandrite Zacharias.

Thomas Merton warns, indeed, against seeking these mystical encounters with God (see The Inner Experience). We are to engage in the practices of contemplation; we are to seek God. But whether we have any particular kinds of mystical experience is solely the gift of God’s grace, given by Him as He wills, according to His divine economy and our need. To seek these experiences is what Merton calls iluminism, a mystical heresy that puts more emphasis on the gifts than their giver. Whether mystic or charismatic, the modern Christian should beware!

Nevertheless, it strikes me that somehow these teachers all promise some sense of the presence God, whether the Uncreated Light or the still, small voice, as well as the dereliction of his absence.

Pope of the Month: St Pontian (230-235)

Apologies for being remiss with my monthly popes! I’m still in recovery from learning, as posted here, that St Hippolytus was probably not anti-pope to Callistus I, Urban I, Pontian, and Anterus. My first step of recovery was to go earlier than Hippolytus to St Victor I; today, I give you one of Hippolytus’ contemporaries, Pope Pontian, whom tradition says was martyred alongside Hippolytus.

Not a lot is actually known about Pope Pontian. During his tenure as Bishop of Rome, Origen was condemned in Egypt by Demetrius of Alexandria, but whether Pontian corroborated the Egyptian synods’ rulings or not is mere conjecture. Indeed, so little is known about him that I feel no guilt in simply giving you our earliest source for him, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. First, Book 6.23.3:

3. While these things were in progress, Urbanus,who had been for eight years bishop of the Roman church, was succeeded by Pontianus, and Zebinus succeeded Philetus in Antioch.

Later, 6.28-29:

Chapter XXVIII.—The Persecution under Maximinus.

The Roman emperor, Alexander, having finished his reign in thirteen years, was succeeded by Maximinus Cæsar. On account of his hatred toward the household of Alexander, which contained many believers, he began a persecution, commanding that only the rulers of the churches should be put to death, as responsible for the Gospel teaching. Thereupon Origen composed his work On Martyrdom, and dedicated it to Ambrose and Protoctetus, a presbyter of the parish of Cæsarea, because in the persecution there had come upon them both unusual hardships, in which it is reported that they were eminent in confession during the reign of Maximinus, which lasted but three years. Origen has noted this as the time of the persecution in the twenty-second book of his Commentaries on John, and in several epistles.

Chapter XXIX.—Fabianus, who was wonderfully designated Bishop of Rome by God.

1. Gordianus succeeded Maximinus as Roman emperor; and Pontianus, who had been bishop of the church at Rome for six years, was succeeded by Anteros. After he had held the office for a month, Fabianus succeeded him.

During Maximinus’ persecution, Pontian and Hippolytus were exiled to Sardinia where both of them died. Before dying, Pontian abdicated from the episcopate; the first Roman bishop to do so. This, according to J. N. D. Kelly, is our earliest secure date in papal history: 28 September 235, as recorded in the fourth-century Liberian Catalogue.

They were later interred at Rome — an excavation discovered Pontian’s grave in the catacomb of San Callisto in 1909.

Because of the dispelling of the old Anti-pope Hippolytus fable (still believed in Kelly’s A Dictionary of Popes), there is not much more to say about Pontian. He was Bishop of Rome for five years, and then died in exile during a persecution.

The few notes worth highlighting are that persecutions were rarely targeted at the entire Christian population — Maximinus Thrax’s persecution was directed at leaders, especially bishops. Note also to take Eusebius’ account of there being many Christians in Alexander Severus’ household and this being the reason for Maximinus’ persecution with caution. Finally, while not everyone buried in the catacombs was a martyr, some were.

Notes

This is largely based on J. N. D. Kelly and Michael J. Walsh, A Dictionary of Popes, 2nd ed. Oxford: 2010.

The translation of Eusebius is that of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Vol. 1; trans. Dr. Arthur C. McGiffert and Dr. Ernest C. Richardson.

Origen on Genuine Love

Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God, and everyone that loveth is born of of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love.

-1 John 4:7-8

I’ve been busy trying to do my research as well as trundling off to London for the British Patristics Conference, so my series about Eros for God is still in need of more thoughts, but this morning I read this in the Ancient Christian Devotional:

I think that any love without God is artificial and not genuine. For God, the Creator of the soul, filled it with the feeling of love, along with the other virutes, so that it might love God and the things which God wants. But if the soul loves something other than God and what God wants, this love is said to be artificial and invented. And if someone loves his neighbour but does not warn him when he sees him going astray or correct him, such is only a pretense of love. -Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, in Ancient Christian Devotional, Year A, p. 200.

But would the above mean that those who are not consciously in communion with God through Christ cannot love? I would say no for the following reasons: a. they are made in God’s image; b. God is love; c. Justin Martyr’s logos spermatikos working within them can keep the image and love of God alive enough to be true love.

However, perhaps what many of us think is love isn’t love? Perhaps it’s some sort of selfish feeling that has little to do with God or the good of the other person but makes us feel nice? Not always. But sometimes.